Congratulations. You’ve graduated college. You’re free!
Do you think you have to run to the nearest big American city after college in order to start paying off those loans?
Sure, you’ve got some major debt to deal with, but other than that, you can go anywhere now, and be anything you like!
If you want to take a break from work, however – and after 16 years of school, you certainly deserve to – you can travel to all those countries you’ve always dreamed of visiting. But first, here are a few tips to remember when you’re planning your trip:
There’s truth to the maxim that you should bring half the clothes and twice the money you think you’ll need.
One of the greatest benefits of travel comes with spontaneity. A chance meeting in a hostel or a pub may turn into an epic adventure you never had planned (when my sleeping arrangements fell through in Luxembourg, it turned out as a tandem bike ride through that most romantic European city. On another trip, a random turn onto a dirt road winded up with my companion and I exploring lava caves in Iceland), and you don’t want your backpack – or, god forbid, your suitcase – weighed down with that pair of high heels or electric razor because you didn’t think you could live without it. A little common sense will help you go a long way.
The key to a light pack is bringing versatile items: use that bandana as a scarf, napkin, mini-towel, or tie it into a makeshift bag for smaller items (and apply that creativity elsewhere!). For clothing, bring dark solids and fabrics that don’t stink (cotton is generally bad). Also, bring a bit of duct tape – you never know when you might need it.
I bring the bare minimum of things in my backpack: two or three outfits, something nice for special occasions (but nothing I couldn’t wear any other day), a good pair of walking shoes and couple of layers for colder climates. A deck of cards is worth its weight in gold for long train rides or other times you have to wait (and it does happen!).
But whatever you do, don’t forget the toothbrush.
Put down the guidebook.
This is an important one, because it’s a little more complicated than just putting down that book you may sometimes feel is your only ally in a strange place.
Be productive when you look at it – learn the material, and then experience the place through your eyes. There isn’t much that is more annoying than a tourist walking through a beautiful city with their nose in a guidebook, reading about how wonderful the world is around them. My advice: go create your own experiences.
Unfortunately, the world isn’t chalked full of good and honest people, so be aware of your surroundings in new places. Pickpockets abound in larger cities, waiting for the next oblivious traveler to walk by. Do your best to fit in. In other words, leave the oversized fanny pack and the ‘I <3 NY’ shirt at home.
Keep track of your passport and money.
The last thing you want is that guilty feeling of having an armed border agent staring you down as you fumble through your bag for your passport. Or worse, arriving at a hostel at the end of a busy day to find your wallet missing.
Some find money belts useful for storing credit cards, cash, and passports, while others spread out their valuables – putting some emergency cash in your shoe might be turn out to be very convenient. Keep a photocopy of your passport somewhere else in your stuff, just in case you lose it.
Make sure you know the visa requirements for the countries you’re visiting. American passports are probably the best in the world when it comes to freedom of travel, and how many places you can go without needing to apply in advance and pay a fee to visit a country. Most countries have 90-day tourist visas that don’t require you to do anything but show up.
One of the biggest mistakes first-time travelers make is trying to see as much as they possibly can in a limited amount of time, or going to as many cities as they can, with the impression that they need to make the trip ‘worth it.’
I’ve done this myself on a few occasions, and while I don’t regret the time I spent traveling, I might have been better spent it exploring a city in depth, rather than sitting on a train waiting for the next one.
Many experienced travelers highly recommend getting away form the heavily Westernized and ‘touristy’ areas to get a real flavor of the local culture. You’ll often be rewarded with incredible experiences in places your guidebook doesn’t list – for good reason. They sometimes exclude places that are more exciting to find on your own, so keep an eye out.
You’re finished with school – now go get an education.